Archive for steven moffat

Coen Artists

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by Tom Steward

As someone who once publicly stated that hiring Steven Moffat as showrunner of Doctor Who was a good move by the BBC, I’m not used to my predictions about television coming to anything. So I was even more surprised to be vindicated about two separate predictions I’ve made on this blog in recent weeks. However, the ways in which they both came to fruition was enough was enough to make me think I should be more careful in what I wish for. As with the posts where these predictions were first made, this one comes with a lot of spoilers:

No guts, no glory

No guts, no glory

After weeks of waiting, on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead we finally found out what had happened to Glenn. Which was nothing. Despite it looking as if his guts were being eaten by a herd of walkers the last time we saw him, it was in fact Nicholas whose insides were being devoured, giving Glenn time and space to hide under a dumpster until the coast was clear. Like all those who appreciate Steven Yeun’s performance in the show, I’m relieved that he’s still around and believed he would be. But, unlike many, I’m not convinced this was the masterstroke of storytelling it’s currently being spun as, largely by people involved in the series. In fact, I think it’s cheap. Teasing the death of a beloved character for a month exploited the goodwill of fans towards the show for the sake of publicity and added nothing dramatically to it.

Post-show discussion program Talking Dead (boy, Chris Hardwick must really think I have it in for him!) did its usual whitewashing of the drama’s shortcomings, re-imagining Glenn’s death hoax as some kind of statement about the mindset of characters in the world and aligning the audience with it. Frankly, it smelled worse than Daryl surely does. I know the entire remit of Talking Dead is to make every artistic decision taken in The Walking Dead seem purely creative and exponentially meaningful – and feel the collective silence if like Kevin Smith you dare to critique some of the choices made – but this isn’t an artistic decision. At least it’s no more artistic than publicity stunts like ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ or whatever they do on Scandal each week to keep people coming back to that steaming pile of crap. It amounts to fixing something you purposefully broke just for the inevitable attention.

Last week’s episode of Fargo could’ve been dubbed a musical tribute to The Coen Brothers. While the FX series is always prone to the borrowing of visual imagery from its cinematic forbearer, more recently it has been honoring its muses through the aural. In the first season, there was an effort to connect Fargo to the timeline of the original movie, but in the second what seems more important is a – specifically musical – link to the Coen universe. Versions of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘O Death’ from O Brother Where Art Thou and ‘I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ from The Big Lebowski litter the soundtrack. At points, characters paraphrase or precis lines from Coen Brothers movies, as if quotations belong to the lexicon. It’s about half as satisfying as it sounds, and yet another distraction in a show full of them.

I was writing about Fargo in reference to playing with our understanding of what is TV and what is cinema. I seem to have given the series far too much credit since it is evidently more interested in propagating the cult of the auteur, something not even The Coen Brothers are that concerned about doing with their movies. It recalls the worst excesses of Quentin Tarantino, when the director decides to reference his own movies rather than other people’s. Or how Steven Moffat (because there’s only a few people I can ever write about) would remind audiences that all his garbage comes from the same bin. It’s a more style-conscious season, as anthology demands change, and I suppose intertextuality has got more on-the-nose as a result. But there’s a sense that the story doesn’t really stretch to ten episodes this time, and this – like shootouts – may be a way of prevaricating.

A style-conscious season of 'Fargo'.

A style-conscious season of ‘Fargo’.

I saw it coming and now I feel responsible. Whether it’s the survival of Glenn or the cinematic engagement of Fargo, it happened more or less as I expected it to. But perhaps that’s the problem. I think I saw through what these programs were doing, rather than seeing them.

 

 

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Doctor No

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Criticism, TV History with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Tom Steward

Last night, new episodes of Doctor Who began airing in Britain and America. This is not a review of the season opener because I didn’t watch it. I didn’t watch it, because for the first time since the series re-launched in 2005, I won’t be watching Doctor Who. I don’t – like some fans – have an aversion to Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. In fact, I’ve said here before I think he’s probably the best actor to have played the role. This also isn’t the first time I’ve had serious issues with the direction that the showrunners have taken the series in, or some of the casting. And I’m not so naïve as to think that the ‘classic’ series – which I greatly prefer – wasn’t at times just as unwatchable as the new series is today. So why am I boycotting it now? Well, it’s for the same reasons that I don’t eat at McDonalds or (knowingly) use Nestle products. There are just too many reasons not to.

'What do you mean you're not watching?'

‘What do you mean you’re not watching?’

The main reason, of course, is Steven Moffat. Still showrunner and head writer after six years – with his creative control increasing annually – Moffat’s scripts and season arcs are incoherent, ramshackle rubbish and his dialogue is formed of soundbyte-friendly non-sentences. You can count the good ideas he’s had during his time on Doctor Who on one hand, and yet they do the job of keeping him afloat while he peddles plagiarism of everything from Source Code to That Mitchell and Webb Sound inbetween lightbulb moments. That’s before we get on to his politics. Moffat is incapable of writing strong women without sexualising them, sabotaging the progress made by breakthrough characters like transgender Timelady Missy with nymphomaniacal nonsense. His treatment of the material is invariably tasteless and perverted, encompassing romanticized suicides, desecration of dead Who actors like Nicholas Courtney, and treating time travel as some sort of incestuous gangbang! It was bad enough when this was in the name of change, now it’s billed as a return to the classic formula.

Much as I would like to, I can’t blame Moffat for all that’s wrong politically with Doctor Who. The series has had two women writers since 2005, a record easily beaten during the classic era which is often held up for being unfair to women and stretching back to the tenure of showrunner Russell T Davies, who supposedly opened the show up for a female audience. That said, Moffat did do a Lorne Michaels when it came to the issue of hiring women as writers, claiming that the entire gender did not have the appetite (nor presumably the talent) to take on the job much as the Saturday Night Live did when confronted with the absence of women of colour on the late-night comedy institution. Missy is not enough of a concessionary flip-flop, and certainly not when she’s this badly written. The Bechdel Test and various academic studies have singled out the sexism of Moffat’s era, though Davies set the idea of women talking adoringly about The Doctor in motion.

If I’m being honest, it’s actually the way that Moffat has tried to rectify the female companion’s Adam’s Rib relationship to The Doctor that has made Doctor Who so difficult for me to enjoy. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara has a domestic and work sphere independent from The Doctor and his TARDIS, albeit one that still centres around her romantic interest in another man. The upshot of this is that one of the most shoddily conceived – and irritatingly portrayed – lead characters in the series’ history is at the heart of the concept in virtually every episode. There’s nothing innovative about The Doctor being The Companion’s sidekick, for that’s the status William Hartnell had when Doctor Who began, and it is a good bit of Bechdel-proofing, but for Clara to get that privilege – and, crucially, not Amy, the previous companion – is a kick in the teeth. For the past couple of seasons, Moffat has been working back from Clara’s original introduction as a mere plot device, and still can’t make her sufficiently human.

A Missied opportunity!

A Missied opportunity!

It’s no surprise that the creator of Sherlock and writer of The Adventures of Tintin re-boot can’t organize a piss-up in a brewery when it comes to Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has inherited perfect pop fiction formula time after time, and always drops the ball. So when he finally goes – and providing Jenna makes good on her recent promise – I’ll come back to the best concept on TV. Because we Whovians live to be disappointed.

The Signal of Foreign

Posted in American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

With so little British television watched in America, at least knowingly, it often seems more important to be an ambassador than a critic. However, some British programmes make that act of intercultural liaison a difficult proposition and it doesn’t help that in particular cases the American equivalents are far better. Now in its third season on CBS, Elementary is an updatation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories transferred from London to New York and in keeping with the conventions of the police procedural. Given the timing of its arrival and modern-day take on the Holmes mythos, Elementary could be thought of as an American remake of the BBC’s Sherlock. To my mind, though, the latter has simply served to make the former completely irrelevant.

Now that's progressive!

Now that’s progressive!

Really, you don’t expect the American version of a British TV series to be more progressive and edgier and yet Elementary is the series in which Watson is an ethnic woman and Holmes is a recovering drug addict. While Sherlock is groping around in the annals of fan fiction desperately searching for storylines, Elementary offers concrete mysteries week-after-week. Elementary stands confidently in the generic traditions and weekly nature of television but Sherlock seems to be constantly pushing against the logic of TV flow. The supporting characters in Sherlock are severely underdeveloped and generally passed off as morons that reaffirm Holmes’ superior intelligence. Elementary’s ensemble cast is full of fleshed out, complex and relevant characters providing a different perspective on Holmes’ investigations that frequently proves crucial.

Sherlock is surrounded by an incredible fandom than feeds off itself as the series incorporates and invites cult audience activities in its name. As such, the writing is often problematic or inept from a story viewpoint, since it must always gesture to this extra layer of self-gratification. Conversely, Elementary makes the mechanics of plot its priority rather than the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which seems to pique the interest of Sherlock fans. Characters and their dynamics emerge as the storylines advance, and the series never takes the re-gendering of Watson as a cue to slash fiction romance. In doing so, the scripts achieve the rare balance of Conan Doyle’s storytelling where character and plot are equally stimulating, yet neither yields power over the other.

In light of Elementary, I no longer have anything good to say about Sherlock. I can certainly see the attraction to American viewers, as the former homogeneously blends into network primetime programming while the latter seems to defy those very conventions. I daresay this is probably why Top Gear is so popular here, because the American equivalent would be so bland and corporate in comparison. Yet a more informed and less ignorant version of Top Gear is no bad thing, and does more justice to the matter in hand than a faux-sitcom peppered with cultural insensitivity. I suspect the curiosity of Sherlock is what blinds viewers here (British viewers you have no excuse!) to the fact that there’s a more interesting adaptation in their backyard.

It’s also a matter of salesmanship. Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat like to write in a way that aims to convince you of the quality of what you’re witnessing in the hope you will ignore the lack of basic competence in the craft. Success is measured in the same way it would be for an ad campaign rather than an individual artwork. It’s hard not to be impressed or enticed by television that is so convinced of its own transcendence. Elementary is rather more discreet in self-estimation and should be judged over time. Regardless of calibre, most imported British dramas make it on to American screens through the PBS Masterpiece strand, which automatically bestows worthiness upon them in ways that Thursday night on CBS does not.

I'm a fan!

I’m a fan!

There’s so much British television that beats America hands-down, especially the regular kind, but the case of Sherlock and Elementary suggests we cannot make broad assumptions about the inherent superiority of British television. Whatever promise of distinction Sherlock offers to American viewers does not conceal its dysfunction as drama and Elementary is not to be confused with the swathes of mediocre procedural television that surrounds it. I want American audiences to buy into the alternative appeal of British TV, but as someone who cares about quality I’m wary of advocating programmes that offer nothing but a sideways look, especially when there’s stronger material in even their most elemental of programming. I can’t help think that only British TV will suffer if America fetishizes our worst.

In With The Who

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2014 by Tom Steward

Here we go again! In August, Peter Capaldi replaced Matt Smith in the iconic title role of the British family science-fiction series Doctor Who, a programme that’s changed actors more times than a Mindy Project midseason re-tool. Capaldi is joint-oldest to play the part with the Sean Connery of Doctors William Hartnell. His age, along with his otherworldly physicality and fannish investment in the history of Doctor Who have led some to assume that Capaldi will resurrect some of the mystery, mastery and manipulation seen in the earliest incarnations of the character. While this is undoubtedly the case, it forgets that Matt Smith’s performance – an actor nearly half Capaldi’s age – was always pushing in that direction, even if the writing for him was not. Smith had managed to convince us that age was no obstacle to playing The Doctor. Now it seems the show is happy to pass The Eleventh Doctor off as some reckless young buck to help viewers come to term with an older Twelfth. It’s double standards, and a very dangerous game!

Who Needs You?

Who Needs You?

Capaldi is probably the best actor to have played the role, and I don’t say that lightly. Unlike Christopher Eccleston – another actor I admire greatly – he also seems a comfortable fit for the role. But essentially this is a repeat of what Doctor Who did in introducing Colin Baker as The Sixth Doctor; a more sinister, less personable variation on the character. Despite Baker’s best (and loudest!) efforts, it was a sea change they were never really able to pull off. So is the show making the same mistakes as before? Short answer: No. Long answer: They’re making different mistakes. This time, the writers have remembered to round out the edges of the character early on, rather than leave character development for a time that may never come. However, somebody needs to tell Steven Moffat that the moral ambiguity of a character is best represented in their actions not in constantly talking about how morally ambiguous they are. Hence, genre pieces like ‘Robot of Sherwood’ and ‘Time Heist’ have been this season’s most successful episodes.

We’re halfway through Capaldi’s first season and it’s hard not to notice the discrepancy between the quality of his performance and the material he’s given. As the absurdist, Godot-like vignette between The Doctor and a Victorian tramp in debut ‘Deep Breath’ indicated, Capaldi’s actorly flow offers new dramatic possibilities for the programme (and puts the show’s use of Eccleston to shame!). But there’s only so much even the finest actor can do when compelled to speak in Moffat-ese baby talk for the majority of episodes, although the head writer has shown some restraint in contracting his idiomatic ‘thingy’ to ‘thing’. Moffat presents the biggest obstacle to Capaldi’s success. Now micro-managing most of the season’s scripts, in addition to several of his own sole pen, the same laziness and hackery that beset Smith’s tenure is already starting to permeate Capaldi’s after only five hours of television. While Capaldi is completely fresh, Moffat’s schtick after five years as showrunner is tired, and tiresome; never more evident than in laborious, tenuous allusions to a familiarly mechanical-looking season arc.

Waiting for Who?

Waiting for Who?

There’s dead weight in the cast too. I sincerely hoped that the character and performance of companion Clara would improve once she was released from her status as story point in the ill-advised ‘impossible girl’ arc. But between the clipped, garbled diction of the dialogue and exponentially annoying inflections of actress Jenna-Louise Coleman (and the smugness…can’t get over the smugness), she’s a lost cause. I’m glad the writers haven’t resorted to the bickering married couple dynamic that made The Doctor and Peri’s TARDIS scenes so unwatchable, and I’m grateful for the buffer that teacher Danny Pink (a considered performance by Samuel Anderson) provides – yes, if there’s one thing Moffat can write well it’s awkward men! But as long as Clara’s the main focus of Doctor Who, which she is more and more since the show revived the autonomy of The Doctor’s companions, it’ll always feel like there a little Moffat running around in the world of the programme. It also doesn’t help Capaldi that the writers insist on keeping the spectre of Matt Smith around.

Doctor Who has always surrounded new Doctors with familiar elements of the series to cushion viewers in times of transition. Indeed, this season began with a Victorian-set adventure featuring the ‘Paternoster Gang’ who were regulars in Smith’s era. But Moffat went so far as to have Smith in the episode (calling Clara from the past) and allusions to the actor in later episodes. As wonderful and apposite as these moments are – because they feature Smith – they’re holding viewers back from really embracing Capaldi’s Doctor. You begin to suspect that Moffat’s vanity is partly behind this effort to build a dramatic whoniverse unified around his time as showrunner. Prior to his debut, I suspected that Capaldi, an Oscar-winning director no less, might excise a little more control over the show than befits his brief, as did auteur Orson Welles who liked to put scare quotes around the term ‘actor’. I can see Capaldi’s influence on the change in pace, the contraction of melodrama, and even the language…in that it sounds like language! Long may it contin-who.

Goodbye Mr. Smith!

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

This blog seems to be nothing but obituaries these days but I’m happy that, after reporting the dreadful loss of James Gandolfini, I’m only talking about the death of a fictional character this week and not even that. In essence all I’m really discussing is an actor leaving a role and something that’s happened ten times over, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be much cause for mourning and sadness. But this time it’s not a relief to say goodbye or a feeling that the pleasure has reached its capacity just that of being deprived of something truly wonderful.

So it’s come to Tardis: Matt Smith leaves ‘Doctor Who’

In 2009 there was nothing but alarm amongst fans of the TV show Doctor Who as the younger ever actor to be cast in the eponymous role was announced as the replacement for David Tennant. Matt Smith was 26 at the time but his uneven hair, emo style and awkward deportment made him seem much much younger. Concern and panic was only exacerbated by a number of appearances in which he seemed illegible and incapable. Unlike most, I was happy to see Tennant and his lazy shortcuts leave the series, but became prematurely nostalgic for him after learning the news.

Matt Smith in 2009, looking more like Adric!

A terrible debut scene at the end of one of the most tedious and portentous Doctor Who episodes ever broadcast didn’t help matters. Horribly written and directed in a needlessly elliptical style, Smith’s performance in the final few minutes of ‘The End of Time’ seemed fragile and misplaced, falsely suggesting a performance of infantile nihilism that was the worst everyone feared. Expectations sufficiently lowered, we started to get reasons to be cheerful. In the previews Smith looked and sounded commanding and unique and word spread that Smith had reconsidered his approach after studying Patrick Troughton’s groundbreaking interpretation of the role.

The jury was still out when in Easter 2010 Smith made his full debut in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Quietly assured in the Bond-teaser opening, he went from strength to strength in his first hour of television, re-injecting a genuine sense of fun, humour and warmth into the show (without resorting to saccharine) and refusing to romanticize the character, making The Doctor a troubling proposition of unpredictable behaviour and sinister tendencies despite his innate affability. Unlike Tennant it wasn’t a needy performance that asked you to idolize the actor as you worshipped the character, just an actor doing a part justice.

As Smith’s first season progressed, his ability to judge the demands of the role became increasingly evident. He knew exactly when to let loose the pantomime of the piece and when to tone it down and squeeze out the profundity. While honouring the previous ten performances of the role-in a way that his last two predecessors had not-Smith stamped his authority on the part with a wholly original spin on the character. Each actor playing The Doctor has to find a way to capture his alien qualities. Smith played The Doctor as a social misfit, comically illiterate in human beings’ behavioural orthodoxies. He talked to children like adults and adults like children, gleefully misjudged fashion and etiquette, and moved and gestured in disregard of convention.

There are definitely two aliens in this photograph!

As the second season of the programme veered head-first into pure space opera, Smith brought to the melodrama an understated honesty and brevity that gave the emotional core of the show a raw power unseen in its mawkish, self-pitying previous few years. Tears were no longer an inevitable part of a cloying formula but hard-won and always accompanied with restraint. As such, Smith pulled off that fine balance between the outlandish and the sincere that makes Doctor Who. He was able to suggest age and wisdom well beyond his years, and with it the overgrown teenager we initially saw evaporated.

Hard-won tears from Matt Smith as The Doctor

Smith’s third season as The Doctor saw him finally getting the mature, heavyweight material he needed to showcase his pedigree as one of the finest performances of the part. Toby Whithouse’s ‘A Town Called Mercy’ allowed Smith to shine in a powerful and disturbing story of genocide and war. However, a rapid fall-off in the quality of the 2013 episodes of Doctor Who-and a gradual slowing of the rate of episodes per year-has left audiences wanting more from Smith, and more of him. It was announced in June that Smith will leave the role at the end of the year, with only two episodes remaining. It is a part that will always outlive any actor that plays it but it will never escape Matt Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s Watching TV with Americans

Posted in Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2013 by Tom Steward

This year’s run of new Doctor Who episodes started last Saturday with ‘The Bells of Saint John’. G wanted to watch it with me not because she was particularly interested but because she wanted an early night and British voices make her sleepy. I expected questions to come thick and fast about the mystery identity of The Doctor’s new companion, Clara, and had prepared numerous explanations. But the first question G asked me would remain unanswered:

 

 

G: Why is he called Doctor Who?

 

T: Exactly. Nobody knows who he is.

 

G: That’s smart. You guys are smart like that.

 

‘I’ve just come from The Great British Menu Comic Relief banquet’

 

In fact, all G’s questions struck at the heart of the show. They also reminded me how much the idea of the programme has been perverted since the 2005 re-launch. After seeing The Doctor ride an anti-gravitational bike up a skyscraper, she quite reasonably asked:

 

 

G: So is Doctor Who like Superman? Do people on earth know who he is?

 

T: He’s supposed to be a stranger to everyone he meets. But in the last few years they’ve made him a legend so now everybody’s heard of him.

 

 

Once the flirting between The Doctor and Clara was in full swing, she asked me:

 

 

G: Isn’t The Doctor supposed to be asexual?

 

T: He used to be but when the show came back he was in love with his first companion and now there’s always a chance they’re more than friends.

 

The greatest show on the Gogglebox!

 

G was impressed with the TARDIS, or more accurately the fantasy of never having to wait for breakfast again. And it didn’t take her long to figure out the shortcomings of Steven Moffat as a writer:

 

 

G: So they just press ‘System Restore’ and it all goes back to normal? Why didn’t he hit them with an online virus? It took about 10 hours to get going and then in 5 seconds it’s all over.

 

Saving the world by turning it off and on again.

 

Once it was over:

 

 

G: That was…good.

 

T: I thought it was dull.

 

G: Good I agree. It should be more like the sea serpent one.

 

T: The what?

 

G: The one we watched with the sea serpents…in Venice.

 

 

So G already knows Steven Moffat is a hack and ‘Vampires of Venice’ is a great episode. Where did I go right?

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2012 by Tom Steward

In the spirit of writing posts that have little or nothing to do with the theme of this blog we submit for your disapproval a review of a pleasingly throwaway episode of Doctor Who which despite its self-conscious tone of inconsequential fun-a take-it-or-leave-it proposition made abundantly clear by the Ronseal title ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’-has been lambasted by fans as infantile. Labelled an unfunny, tonally confused mess, the second episode of the new season of Doctor Who is in fact a refreshingly straightforward piece of storytelling with a number of fine performances from a top-notch cast and some spot-on characterisation.

It does exactly what it says on the tin!

For the record, when it comes to family entertainment I’m far fonder of efforts that package heavyweight ideas and adult themes with fun and simplicity than those which adopt a portentous and ambiguous style and tone which ignores the majority of its audience base. This is why family movies The Wizard of Oz and Babe are such enduring classics. They have profound things to say about adolescence and animal rights (respectively, although you shouldn’t glue wings to a monkey) but deliver them with a lightness of touch. It’s also why their self-consciously darkened sequels Return to Oz and Babe: Pig in the City are artistic failures. Disturbing and inappropriate for children, these movies address the serious issues of adult life head-on without regard for how young viewers react to or understand them. As an institutional mongrel straddling the BBC’s drama, children’s and light entertainment departments, Doctor Who has often struggled to know where to draw the line on adult content.

Looks fun, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who has always been the scourge of conservative parents and campaigners who claim that it broadcasts material unsuitable for children. Generally, though, the programme has been pretty responsible on this count, erring on the thrilling and exciting side of horror without any of the lingering mental scars. What’s more, when it blundered in the 1970s and 1980s with unacceptable levels of physical violence, producers had the good sense to revert to stories that played up the light-hearted and comedic side of the programme for a while. That said, the first time I’ve ever thought that the show had gone too far was last year’s ‘The Almost People’ in a scene showing Amy giving birth while imprisoned in a coffin-like capsule. The sheer visceral horror could only alarm young women about what would happen to their bodies in adulthood. It irresponsibility pursued shock value without giving children guidance on how to interpret what was happening.

Adult body horror in a children’s TV show

It’s no surprise then that an episode which makes good on Doctor Who’s commitment to its younger viewers has been added to this year’s run, or that it works so well. Chris Chibnall’s ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ opens with a time-shifting montage familiar from Steven Moffat’s episodes but while the latter writer uses this technique to convolute the storyline, the former’s intentions are to suggest whirlwind adventure. It also glosses over what is a satisfyingly linear narrative structure, an episode purposefully striding to its conclusion that makes the best of its simple story by gradually unfolding mysteries like a detective novel and maintaining the breakneck pace of the fixed timeframe. Manichean character contrasts abound: macho chauvinist/female supremacist, righteous hero/amoral villain, emotionally reserved father/compassionate son. This superficiality allow the characters to be quickly absorbed into the action-packed storyline and does a good job of orienting younger viewers in what to feel about the characters. But in working through these stark oppositions, a thoughtful message emerges that extreme viewpoints should be eschewed in favour of tolerance and compromise.

The gang

The gang

The comedy of his episode succeeds more than in previous attempts as humour derives effortlessly from character rather than being pasted in as anomalous gags and set-pieces. It lies in Brian (Mark) Williams’ passive-aggressive chastising of his son’s lack of DIY masculinity and relatable rendition of fathers’ eccentric habits. It is in the oblivious taboo-breaking misogyny of Rupert Graves’ big game hunter and our unnerving attraction to the politically incorrect male heroes of old. Even the incompetent robot double act (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb) which smacks of extraneous vaudeville makes shtick out of their incongruous personalities not just their funny voices. Making characters’ actions easier to understand conversely makes them more authentic rather than one-dimensional. Rather than inject forced notes of pacifism and make him apologise for causing suffering, The Doctor here is allowed to destroy an evil enemy at the cost of life (an animal’s at that!) without the usual dismay and remorse that writers think makes him seem more complex but in fact insults viewers’ intelligence. And villain Solomon (David Bradley) oddly seems more genuinely menacing the more of a caricature of unrestrained capitalism he becomes.

Better than the Empire State Building

But there’s no doubt that what truly makes this episode excel is the performances. Mark Williams‘ deadpan yet emotionally resonant portrayal of Rory’s father is hilarious, observant and poignant, simultaneously so in the penultimate image of Brian enjoying a flask coffee and lunchbox sandwich from Earth’s orbit. David Bradley’s classically styled posturing and vocal intonations held all the gravitas of a great theatrical villain but with the nuance and naturalism to make it credible for the small screen. Solomon’s material and sexual avarice, which struck a discordant note with many viewers, gave a welcome clarity to what should constitute pure evil in the world of Doctor Who. And crucially it did so without spoiling a rollicking good time.

 

 

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